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Improving Lives in the 21st Century Reliable internet access has become a necessity for economic develop-


ment, business, education and entertainment. But it’s a necessity rural Oklahomans often lack. According to Brandon McBride, administrator of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, 40 percent of rural Americans are un- derserved when it comes to reliable broadband. “The situation today is eerily similar to the 1930s when electric co-ops





fi rst took power to rural areas where investor-owned utilities didn’t want to go,” says Jason Palmer, customer service supervisor for BOLT Fiber Optic Services, a NEOEC subsidiary. “Our board is very future-minded. They want to take internet to the underserved.” In 1998, the co-op established a subsidiary with a technology and com-


munications division called RECtec and began offering broadband via fi ber optic cable to schools, hospitals and libraries. Grove Public Schools was one of the fi rst districts to have a fi ber connec-


tion. Cleora Public schools, a rural K-8 district, has been connected via fi ber for seven years. “The students had a great connection at school, but many of them didn’t have service at home,” says BOLT operations supervisor, Alex Mercado. For a time, RECtec offered dialup to NEOEC members, but the connec- tion wasn’t reliable, so they discontinued it. “At our annual meeting, we ask our members to complete a survey about their electric service. One of the comments we saw frequently was, ‘When are you going to offer internet again?’” says Cindy Hefner, NEOEC man- ager of public relations.


Having heard the members’ desire for internet service, NEOEC’s leader- ship explored several options. “Our board looked at providing broadband over power lines or wireless internet, but neither of those would be completely reliable,” Hefner says. “If we offered it we wanted to make sure it would be good quality and reliable.” The co-op determined fi ber optic cable—all the way to the customer’s home—would be the most dependable. They also decided they would pur- chase and maintain the head-end equipment to make sure it stayed up at all times. NEOEC procured funding for the project through a Rural Utilities Service (RUS) loan, part of the 2013 Farm Bill. The RUS granted the co-op a loan for $90 million. Since 2014, the co-op has installed 3,000 miles of fi ber optic cable, the largest deployment of rural fi ber in US history. On June 15, 2015, the fi rst paying customers received high-speed internet


from BOLT Fiber Optic Services. Today, BOLT offers co-op members, and underserved rural Oklahomans in a four-county area, high-speed internet up to 1 Gigabit per second in speed, TV (as many as 300 channels), VOIP phone, and home security services. BOLT has more than 3,000 active cus- tomers and more than 2,400 waiting on service. “Our biggest challenge is getting the fi ber built out fast enough,” Mercado says. “People want service so badly.”


Revitalizing Rural Oklahoma In just over a year since BOLT started providing broadband, signs of its economic impact are already visible in Northeast Oklahoma. Shangri-La Resort on Monkey Island is building a 120-room hotel and conference center. The plans for the hotel only moved forward after BOLT agreed to provide a fi ber connection to the facility. Ferra Engineering, an international aerospace corporation with branches


in Australia, India and California recently established a location in Grove. Access to BOLT high-speed internet has been essential to the business’ operations. “When a business goes into a community to fi nd out if they can expand


NOVEMBER 2016 9


Our board is very future-minded. They want to take internet to the underserved.





Jason Palmer, BOLT Fiber Optic Services


there, one of the factors they look at is internet access. BOLT is a critical part of that for our area,” says Craig Hendrickson, NEOEC marketing specialist.


Broadband access is also allowing those with weekend homes in Northeast


Oklahoma to remain for extended periods, providing an additional boost to the economy. “A lot of people have second homes at the lake. They come from Dallas


and Oklahoma City for the weekend. Many of them have better service here than they do back home, so they stay longer,” Hefner says. Mike Wilson, a NEOEC member, is president of Safety Trainings Systems, Inc., in Tulsa. He has been connected to BOLT as his lake house on Monkey Island for about six months. Before BOLT he says he had a 5 Mbps con- nection. Today his connection is 100 Mbps. As of Black Friday, BOLT will upgrade their 100 Mbps customers, to 1 Gbps, for the same monthly cost; customers on other monthly plans will also get a free upgrade. “The improved connection and bandwidth with BOLT has been fl awless.


It provides an uninterrupted wifi connection for streaming movies, using remotely controlled thermostats, security cameras and automatic lighting control. We have plenty of bandwidth for several iPhones, iPads and laptop computers, all without buffering and no data cap,” Wilson says. “The fi rst thing our guests want to know isn’t when are we going out in the boat. It’s what’s the BOLT wifi password.” The improved connection has allowed Wilson and his wife Novell to spend more time at the lake. “A major advantage to me has been the reliable VPN connection I have


back to the business server at my Tulsa offi ce. So now, I can effi ciently offi ce from the lake.” According to BOLT Manager Sheila Allgood, broadband access is vital to the future of Oklahoma’s rural communities. “Towns will continue to become ghost towns if we don’t change the pattern and bring in better-paying jobs. Access to this advanced technology will open doors for both residents and business here in northeast Oklahoma,” she says. NEOEC and BOLT are doing their part to keep rural communi- ties from being added to the list of Oklahoma ghost towns, while possibly revitalizing some that are already on the list. “Who would think the town of Afton,


Oklahoma would be in the top 1 percent in the nation for internet speeds,” Palmer refl ects. Perhaps Afton’s best days are


ahead.


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